Senator says Japan reneged on deal to release Navy officer from Yokosuka prison
Stars and Stripes March 2, 2023
Sen. Mike Lee took to the Senate floor Wednesday on behalf of a Navy officer imprisoned in Japan to accuse its government of backtracking on a deal for the sailor’s release
The Utah Republican earlier this week used his personal Twitter account to hurl a flurry of messages at Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Lee repeatedly called for the hand-over of Lt. Ridge Alkonis, who is serving three years for two traffic deaths near Mount Fuji in May 2021.
“Patience in Washington has grown thin,” Lee said in his Senate speech. “The Japanese government has vastly underestimated the intensity of bipartisan support for Lt. Alkonis in Congress and every level of government.”
Lee said Japan reneged on an August agreement to transfer Alkonis to U.S. custody. Lee said he met that month in Tokyo with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, who made an “unequivocal commitment” to expedite a prisoner transfer once he received the appropriate paperwork from the United States.
“It was understood at the time that that would be in a matter of days or weeks, not months or years,” Lee said. “Lt. Alkonis felt comfortable signing off on the transfer paperwork because of Foreign Minister Hayashi’s commitment, and with this understanding the U.S. Department of Justice completed the necessary paperwork in less than two weeks.”
The Japanese government, however, has been sitting on that request for “months and months” and later “tried to renege on the promise” and denied Hayashi made the commitment, Lee said.
During the 13-minute Senate address, Lee made no mention of his recent Twitter threat to stall Japan’s plan to purchase 400 U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles for $1.55 billion. The purchase, approved Feb. 28 by the lower house of Japan’s Diet, is part of the country’s largest-ever defense budget, $50 billion, designed to address China’s growing influence in the region.
Lee’s personal Twitter account, @BasedMikeLee, was suspended around 3:30 a.m. Thursday in Japan. Two hours later, Twitter CEO Elon Musk tweeted that Lee’s account was “incorrectly flagged as impersonation” and the suspension was lifted.
Alkonis, of Claremont, Calif., is eight months into a three-year sentence for negligent driving that caused the deaths of two Japanese people and injured a third in May 2021. Shizuoka District Court sentenced him in October 2021. Lee said Alkonis, who was assigned at the time to a destroyer at Yokosuka Naval Base, was mistreated while under pretrial arrest.
“He was placed in solitary confinement for 26 days; during that time, he was denied access to legal counsel, denied access to an adequate translator, denied proper medical care, despite the fact he had just been in a serious accident and was subjected to intense interrogation tactics at all hours of the night,” Lee said in the Senate.
A spokeswoman for Naval Forces Japan, Cmdr. Katie Cerezo, said Thursday she could not comment directly on Lee’s speech. However, she said Alkonis was visited 14 times by members of his chain of command, his wife and his Japanese attorney while in pretrial confinement.
Lee on Twitter gave Kishida 48 hours to comply with the demand to release Alkonis, then trimmed his deadline to 24 hours. The deadline passed with no response from the prime minister, whose office would not comment on Lee’s statements. Some government officials in Japan are required to speak to reporters only on condition of anonymity.
“@kishida230, you’ve made your choice,” Lee tweeted Wednesday. “I hope you’re ready for some conversations on the Senate floor that you’re not likely to enjoy. This issue isn’t going away, and neither am I.”
The lawmaker also promised Kishida “a long series of conversations” in Congress about the status of forces agreement that outlines the rights and responsibilities of the U.S. military population in Japan.
In his Senate speech, Lee said a renegotiation of SOFA was “long overdue.”
Lee’s office did not return multiple calls requesting comment.
U.S. Forces Japan said that it has continued to “closely monitor” Alkonis’ case and has remained in contact with its Japanese counterparts, as well as Naval Forces Japan and the U.S. Embassy in Japan, spokesman Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jonathan Wright told Stars and Stripes by email Thursday.
Formerly a weapons officer assigned to the destroyer USS Benfold, Alkonis was driving with his family through Fujinomiya after a trip to nearby Mount Fuji when he fell unconscious and crashed into the victims outside a soba restaurant.
The case sparked a movement to secure the officer’s release, spearheaded by his wife, Brittany Alkonis, who has demonstrated across the country, met with Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C., to plead her case and met President Joe Biden after his State of the Union address in Congress on Feb. 7.
Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.